The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Friday sent a Gilbert church's lawsuit over town sign regulations back to U.S. District Court after affirming part of the lower panel's ruling.
The suit was brought by Good News Community Church of Gilbert in 2007 and claims the sign code was more restrictive for church signs than other signs bearing ideological messages, including campaign signs.
The Scottsdale-based Alliance Defense Fund, representing the church, appealed the U.S. District Court's denial of a preliminary injunction against town enforcement of the ordinance, which limits the size and length of time a sign can be displayed.
The church pressed on with the suit even after Gilbert amended it in response to the complaint, contending that the town's treatment of different kinds of signs with noncommercial messages - depending on whether they were considered ideological, political or an advertisement for a "qualifying event" - was still unconstitutional.
In the 9th Circuit opinion written by Judge M. Margaret McKeown, the court said the U.S. District Court was correct in saying Gilbert's sign law doesn't unfairly favor commercial speech when it regulates temporary signs. It didn't settle the matter of whether some kinds of noncommercial speech face too many restrictions.
The church uses the signs to invite passers-by to its Sunday services, considered "qualifying events" under the current ordinance. They can be put up 12 hours before the event and must be removed by an hour after it's over. Ideological and political signs face fewer restrictions.
Gilbert spokeswoman Beth Lucas said town officials don't comment on pending litigation.
Alliance Defense Fund lawyer David Cortman said in a statement Friday: "The government cannot require churches to abide by stricter rules than it places on other non-commercial signs. The Constitution prohibits government officials from singling out religious groups for that kind of discrimination."